At the all-boys boarding school in Virginia that I attended at the outset of the compact disc era, a clutter of smudged and cracked plastic jewel cases in the vicinity of a comparably distressed boombox was de rigueur in the dorm rooms, and you had older boys to answer to if your own CD library didn’t include a sufficiency of entries in the campus canon—Who’s Next, say, or Led Zeppelin IV, Exile on Main St., Back in Black, The Dark Side of the Moon, or Rumours. (Regarding the last of these, an appreciation for female vocalists was apparently permissible in that fragile redoubt of testosterone, provided that men were still playing the drums and guitars.) Compilation albums usually ran afoul of received musical purity codes—woe betide the possessor of John Denver’s Greatest Hits—but there were five notable and ubiquitous exceptions: Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Legend; Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975); The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1971; Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78; and Jimmy Buffett’s Songs You Know by Heart.
I and the majority of my classmates, while we differed in personality, abilities, and interests as any population of human beings will differ, were nonetheless demographically of a piece: generally unreconstructed straight white male Reagan-era teenagers from middle- and upper-class Protestant homes in the Southeast and Texas. I loved my school, and I still love the musical catalog on which its prevailing student culture in those years insisted; and today, nearly four decades into my subsequent reconstruction, I love so much other music besides. There are at least six entertainment industry outfits that have made it their business to rank the best LPs ever recorded (one, two, three, four, five, six), and unanimously they acknowledge as exceptional the studio albums that I have remembered above from my adolescence. They also, however, unanimously praise Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, both of which were recorded and released in my final year of high school, as were Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full (cited on four “best ever” lists), The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come (also cited on four), Morrissey’s Viva Hate (ditto), Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (ditto again), and Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses (cited on three). In my first spring at MICDS, when we were all adjusting to pandemic-imposed isolation, I enjoyed curating for the Class of 2020 on Apple Music and Spotify, by way of consolation for the loss of their senior spring, a playlist of songs from that throwback year—my own senior year—and enjoyed being reminded of how much durable music was made then, though nearly half of it became familiar to me only later in life.
Jimmy Buffett, who died last Friday at the age of 76, recorded 29 studio albums over the course of 50 years, but just one—1977’s Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitudes—rates a mention on any of those “best ever” lists, and it’s a single mention at that. Buffett was no one’s critical darling, but that hasn’t stopped Sirius XM from giving him his own radio channel, for whose audience there is presumably no more aptly named album in existence than Songs You Know by Heart. “Peopled with pirates, smugglers, beach bums, and barflies,” notes Bill Friskics-Warren’s obituary in the New York Times, “Mr. Buffett’s genial, self-deprecating songs conjured a world of sun, salt water, and nonstop parties animated by the calypso country-rock of his limber Coral Reefer Band.” I can’t recall the last time I’d thought of Buffett before learning of his death, but I certainly hadn’t thought of him as aging or infirm. He was not the sort of person—or perhaps I should say his was not the sort of persona—that aged. Especially after the “celebrity death prank” TikTok meme from earlier this year, the news of his passing that greeted me over coffee on Saturday morning initially felt like a hoax. I shared it with Ruth after confirming it was true. (I used to sing Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit to her when we were first dating.) She hadn’t seen the headlines yet. “Was he on an island somewhere?” Was he ever not on an island somewhere?
The expression “the good life” emerged in popular parlance about one hundred years ago and immediately surpassed the phrase “a good life” in frequency of use. I have been thinking and speaking often in our new school year about circles and lines, and I am reminded again of them now. Perhaps “the” good life of our collective imagination is one passed in salubrious circles, effortless and breezy—life on an island somewhere. (Maybe St. Somewhere?) Perhaps “a” good life, on the other hand, is experienced along a linear trajectory, not necessarily without obstacle, but nevertheless fulfillingly. A series of Google searches reveals that we refer to “the” good life in the present continuous tense (e.g., “He is living the good life”) over seven times more often than we refer to it in the present perfect tense (e.g., “He has lived the good life”). “The” good life, in other words, is generally happening in the now, and constantly, in those salubrious circles of our imagination, of which Jimmy Buffett’s ostensible milieu of “sun, salt water, and nonstop parties” is as evocative an exemplar as any.
We speak of “a” good life, by contrast, in the present perfect tense (e.g., “He has lived a good life”) and in the past tense (e.g., “He lived a good life”) about one and a half times and six times more often, respectively, than we speak of it in the present continuous tense (e.g., “He is living a good life”). These disparities would suggest that “a” good life is more likely to reveal itself in hindsight—in looking back along time’s linear progression. Buffett’s He Went To Paris, the nostalgic final verse of which relates a conversation between the songwriter and the 86-year-old title character, offers a case in point of past-tense reflection: “Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic / But I had a good life all the way.”
If the trouble with “a” good life is that its realization is belated, the trouble with “the” good life is that it seems to be reserved principally for other people. The sentences “He…,” “She…,” and “They are living the good life” are collectively over 17 times more common online than “I am living the good life”; and “I’ve lived a good life”—the sentiment of Buffett’s wise older friend—is almost 50 times more common than “I’ve lived the good life.” Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to live an actual good life in the present than to chase an imaginary third-person one (“the good life”) into the future? Perhaps the latter choice will be increasingly countercultural in the world that today’s MICDS students will inherit: the incidence of the phrase “a good life” has been ascendant among English speakers over the last three decades; and about 15 years ago “a good life” surpassed “the good life” in frequency of use. May our collective reconstruction continue.
“He went to Paris looking for answers / To questions that bothered him so.” Buffett’s ballad both begins and ends with these words, and chronicles a life’s journey between. Circles and lines. It’s a good life—it’s a wonderful life—if only we will make it so.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Happy weekend to you all.
Head of School
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Pencil Thin Mustache by Jimmy Buffett. It’s such a fun tune to play—a circus of dominant seventh chords: D F#7 B7 E7 A7 D. (Parents of younger children, please be advised of the PG-rated lyrics.) (Apple Music / Spotify)